Saturday, February 15, 2014

India 2014: Towards A Redefinition

All signs are 2014 will be a defining year in India's history. It is only a freak accident that this year's calendar is identical to 1947's, the year India became independent of the British Rule. But more significantly, India's General Elections this year may mark a departure from its course so far, in more ways than one.

It is now all set for the elections in May. Battle lines are sharply drawn, protagonists, old and new, have taken up their positions and the rhetoric is reaching the fever pitch. But, the debate is more than about which party would eventually win, or even, despite being highly contentious, who becomes India's next Prime Minister, despite the countless Facebook-hours Indians are investing on these issues. This year's significance may lie in a re-definition of what India stands for.

For all the hoopla, the election means less than it is projected to be. The hand voters are dealt with is quite poor. Their effective choice is between a heir, who spectacularly saw his moment come and go (misunderstanding the nature of dynastic politics perhaps, where timing is everything) and a demagogue, who represents the corporatist idea of India as a huge capitalist Disneyland, but who is struggling to overcome an unsavoury record of presiding over a genocide (which he doesn't want to disown, because this strengthens, perversely, his claim of being a 'strong leader', nor he wants to own, for understandable reasons). The difference between the two parties may not be much, except which industrialists to favour and whether or not Valentine's Day should be celebrated in India. There is no effective debate about what India's course of the future will be, and even the Communist parties are merely trying to recover from their self-inflicted obsolesce, and various regional chieftains trying to hoard their votes in the hope of ministerial berths.

But, even without debate, India is hurtling towards a departure, a re-definition of what India is meant to be. At the time of Independence, India's leaders faced a dilemma and attempted to answer it in a particular way; this time around, we are trying to change that answer. And, in this, lies the chief tension of 2014, and its era-defining significance.

In 1947, the question before India's founders were in what way, India was a nation. At that moment of exuberance, at the time of a re-birth of a nation at the midnight hour of 15th August 1947 - to resurrect Nehru's poetic metaphor - India needed to be a nation in its contemporary, European sense. And, to do so, it had few instruments that European nations used: Its geographical identity was no longer defined as the land East of the Indus and South of the Himalaya's, because another nation had a similar claim. The idea of India was being formed as a challenge to the two-nation theory advanced by the Muslim League with the tacit support of the Imperial Administration. To be sure, India had to lay claim to its unified history to deny that 'it is no more a country than the equator', as Churchill famously said.

To do so, the founders of the Indian nation came up with the idea of a cosmopolitan nation. They wanted the cohesiveness of a modern nation, and thought in terms of grand narratives, such as a common destiny for all of its people. Yet this idea transcended the narrow definitions of race, religion, regions, languages and castes: India was to be a nation of all people's, open, welcoming, tolerant. Just as American Founders conceived a nation which was to be simultaneously exceptional and universal, the idea of India was unique, but universal. It was sophisticated, but, contrary to its detractors claims, not Western: It had more in common with the ideas of pan-Indian entities ruled by Ashoka and Akbar than Mazzini's Italy or Bismarck's Prussia. 

Despite the fact that this is now commonly portrayed as a bad dream, it was ambitious. India's plan to give votes to everyone predated other democratic nations, including United States. It needed a steely idealism to create the institutions of a modern democratic state, despite being a poor, illiterate country with many regional differences and strong vested interests. It was to be based on a meritocracy enabled by good education, it was to be governed through a carefully laid out balance of power between the institutions of the state, it was to work for its people through a delicate compromise between the local and the national. 

This post is not about being nostalgic about India's past, but rather the opposite - being critical of it. Contrary to the claim that this founding idea of India was wrong - because common Indians are not capable of handling the freedom afforded to them - I shall claim that its underachievement lay in one of its key assumption, that the newly empowered Middle Classes will advance the democratic agenda in their own enlightened self-interest. That assumption, widely held worldwide among political theorists (and popular even today), did not anticipate the vulgarity of dependent development of the Indian middle class: A class which was to be defined by its consumption but not by its intellect, by its interests but not by its contribution. Unlike the middle classes of the Western countries, which was presumed to be modern and ignited the imagination of Indian nation-builders, and who held their elite to account, Indian middle classes, formed in a vacuum (as the elite left for safer abode abroad), quickly bestowed upon themselves the behaviour of the elite: It was, indeed, their turn to eat.

The Indian polity of succeeding generations have been the story of the degeneration of its middle classes. The 66-year long  narrative is now broad enough to let us see beyond its twists and turns, megalomaniac leaders and sycophantic Babus, the suppression of dissent and promotion of mediocrity, embrace of global markets through fear-mongering rather than constructive deliberation, the breakdown of universality into regional patriarchy, and represent a pattern: A class of people in a hurry to secure everything for themselves, guaranteeing a comic strip of the tragedy of the commons. Even India's new-found confidence came not on the back of prosperity, but on arrogance that we can safely forget those who have been left out. Satyajit Ray was criticised in India because his films showed poverty: The same criticism resurfaced for Slumdog Millionnaire. It was alright to leave the poor to leave in abject poverty, it was wrong to talk about it. The same sentiment surfaces again and again: when Arundhati Roy talks about the dispossessed in the wake of land grabs by industrialists in Central India, she is accused of being anti-Indian. The same fate is shared by other lesser mortals who dare to ask why India needed to recall its Helicopter gunships from Central Africa to use against its own people. As Arundhati Roy says, the Indian state is now one with the elite.

So, 2014 is the anointment of this new vision of India, one very unlike the one conceived before. This is a state where all the minorities, religious, linguistic or otherwise, and the poor, are invisible, wished away. This is a true nation, more in the European mould, which is defined by prosperity, of those who run it. After 2014, land grab will become less of an issue because the Government wants to legislate to make it easy to take land for 'industrialisation'. After 2014, the rights of the majority and the minority will be sorted out once and for all: The majorities will get back their deserved power. This departure is already agreed upon, without debate, with near consensus.

One of the Prime Ministerial hopefuls, Narendra Modi, says, for him, India first! No one will ask him which India though, nor he will say. But the answer is understood by everyone, at least by every Middle Class person who are enjoined in the cause: This is a majoritarian India, of its elite, by its elite and for its elite. 2014 is supposed to be that great year when India would become a nation, and irretrievably lose itself.

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